Journal of World History 14.1 (2003) 105-111
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Eight Eurocentric Historians. By J. M. BLAUT. New York: The Guilford Press, 2000. xii + 228 pp. $42.00 (cloth); $22.00 (paper).
With commendable zeal, J. M. Blaut sets out to refute the ideas of eight major authors whose works argue the centrality of Europe and the superiority of its culture in the creation of modern civilization. He accuses them of "false assertions," "discredited arguments," and "classical fallacies," not to mention "invidious comparisons" (pp. 177,183). This is a worthy and prodigious task, and Blaut does an estimable job of generalizing about the attributes of Eurocentrism and how it has warped our perception of other civilizations. Moreover, by identifying [End Page 105] and examining in turn many of the most important theses advanced to explain the recent course of history, he provides us with a very useful compendium of those ideas. His final chapter consists of a comprehensive "checklist" of arguments for which conscientious scholars should be on the alert. However, by asserting rather than proving his own claims and by assigning the same value to modernization as do the eight, albeit with a different conclusion, Blaut does nothing to dethrone these authors.
Eight Eurocentric Historians forms part two of an intended trilogy focused on Eurocentric diffusion, the assumption, as Blaut says, that "progress is somehow permanent and natural in the European part of the world but not elsewhere, and progress elsewhere is mainly the result of the diffusion of the innovative ideas and products from Europe and Europeans" (p. xi). In a prior volume, The Colonizer's Model of the World (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993), he argued that European colonialism implanted false assumptions in the modern imagination. In reality, Blaut reiterates in both books, Europe in 1492 had no advantage "actual or potential" (p. 192) over other areas of the world. Rather, it derived a temporary benefit from a "location on the globe" that gave it access to the riches of the New World. These stolen resources, he believes, placed political power in the hands of "the merchant-capitalist class and its allies," who used it to transform their own societies and develop the world's economy to their own advantage (p. 2). Eurocentrism, a kind of "tunnel vision" that derived from this wealth, had the deleterious effect of marginalizing and devaluing the peoples at the periphery. Eurocentrists have rested their case on a supposed superiority of religion, race, environment, and culture. While the first two of these have lost their cogency, today's authors continue to urge culture and environment as factors giving Europe an edge. Blaut trains his gun sight on these heresies.
The cultural determinists imbibed their distorted perspective from the seminal work of sociologist Max Weber, the "godfather" (p. 204), whose Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958) celebrated European dynamism. Weber is guilty not only of racism, but more offensive still of hailing the wonders of Western science, arts, scholarship, and ideal of the "citizen," in contrast to the "oriental despotism" that retarded traditional societies. He applauded the West's trading cities for offering liberties found nowhere else and its religious development for spurring a parallel economic activity. Weber's comparisons are unfair in their assessments of Asian cultures, insists Blaut, because they rely on stereotypes from the ancient period or false generalizations disseminated by colonial regimes. He censures Weber for being "ignorant" [End Page 106] about the East, whose cities were every bit as free and autonomous as Western cities before the Industrial Revolution, whose people did not cause poverty through their irrationality but rather suffered historically as victims of landlords as they suffer today from multinational moneylenders. They are "waiting patiently" for deliverance, willing to abandon whatever binds them in poverty (p. 27).
Blaut indicts Lynn White Jr., author of Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), for applauding the uniquely inventive minds of Europeans and their great technological feats. He dismisses White's argument that Judeo-Christian teleology generated expectations of progress and disparages the latter's claims for the heavy plow, the horse...